Town Reports Progress On Racial Justice But Considerable Work Remains


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Report On The Joint Meeting Of the Human Rights Commission, Community Safety And Social Justice Committee, And Town Council, May 10, 2023

This meeting was held in a hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here and here.

Town Council: Lynn Griesemer (Council President, District 2), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), Shalini Bahl Milne (District 5), and Andy Steinberg (at large) were present at Town Hall. Michele Miller (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Anika Lopes (District 4), Pam Rooney (District 4) participated on Zoom. Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) and Cathy Schoen (District 1) were absent.

CSSJC: Allegra Clark, Deborah Ferreira, Pat Onanibaku, Philip Avila,  Freke Ette participated on Zoom.

HRC: Philip Avila, Victor Cruz, Elizabeth Haygood, Tylar Matsuo, Rani Parker, Juliana Shepard participated on Zoom. 

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council), Pamela Nolan Young (Director of Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) and Earl Miller (Director of Community Responders for Equity, Safety, and Service) participated via Zoom.

On November 14, in response to racial tensions heightened by the encounter between two police officers and nine teen agers on July 5, 2022, the Town Council passed a resolution instructing the Town Manager to work with the DEI Department, the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC), the Human Rights Commission (HRC), and the African Heritage Reparations Assembly (AHRA) on seven initiatives to foster equity in town. These seven initiatives are:

1) create and implement a reconciliation plan to include a proposal for community visioning; 

2) create a proposal for a Resident Oversight Board; 

3) undertake a review of public safety protocols for responding to and handling public safety calls involving minors, in order to recommend changes to those protocols, if appropriate; 

4) explore options for a Youth Empowerment Center as part of the Capital Improvement Plan; 

5) develop protocols for active engagement by community responders (CRESS); 

6) develop and offer racial equity training, know your rights training, and other options for additional training to support employees and members of the public; and 

7) raise awareness in the community about these efforts.

In addition, the Town Manager was to report to the council on the progress on this reconciliation plan no later than two months from the date of that vote.

This meeting was requested by the CSSJC and HRC because of a perceived lack of progress and transparency on these issues, as documented in their May 1 memo to Bockelman, Nolan Young, and the Town Council. The discussion was chaired by AHRA chair and Town Councilor Michele Miller (District 1).

Bockelman introduced the discussion by noting that the town has created two new departments, CRESS and DEI, in the past 10 months. He praised the groundbreaking work done by Miller and Nolan Young, but noted that each level achieved brings new challenges, one of which is to make the programs financially stable so that they can persist.

Nolan Young Outlines Work Of DEI Over The Past Year
In a memo to the town council, the CSSJC and the HRC, Nolan Young identified the progress her two-person department has made on each of the seven initiatives. Her presentation included a PowerPoint summary.

Building on the final reports (Part A and Part B) submitted by the Community Safety Working Group (CCSWG) in 2021, she highlighted her discussions on community visioning with Dr. Barbara Love and said she hopes to procure funds to develop a program with a focus on community safety and social justice visioning similar to Love’s program

She also said she submitted a request for procurement (RFP) of a consultant to develop a plan for establishing a Residents’ Oversight Board (ROB) to handle issues with the police. The committee to evaluate proposals that have been submitted will include members from DEI, CSSJC, HRC, and the police department. An Americorps volunteer will start work on youth services with both CRESS and DEI in August, in preparation for opening a Youth Empowerment Center.

In addition, Nolan Young has been presenting workshops and training in anti-racism for the police and other town departments. (However, Councilor Ellisha Walker (at large) later pointed out that anti-racism involved changing policies, not only training). The DEI Department has also organized programs on diversity with the HRC  for the public. The latest event was an Asian American and Pacific Islander event on May 7. She has also been working on increasing translation services in town to better reach non-English speaking residents.

CRESS Soon To Begin Taking 911 Calls
CRESS Director Earl Miller said he took this job because of the depth of discussions the town had around alternatives for public safety. In his presentation, he briefly introduced the 10-person CRESS staff and noted that his department has a different set of responsibilities than the police and fire departments. Also, each of the people CRESS deals with has a different set of needs, he said, and it takes time for responders to learn how to meet those needs and also to protect their own mental health in dealing with some difficult situations. Most times, CRESS responders follow up with the people they have dealt with.

Responders are now training to take appropriate 911 calls, which Miller hopes will begin over the summer. 

CSSJC And HRC Respond
CSSJC Chair Allegra Clark said that the November 14 initiative failed to address the July 5 incident and the harm it caused to the young people and their families. “We want to find justice for the youth and move forward,” she said. Clark read from the open letter from the CSSJC to town government:

“Much has been discussed and written about the nine youth that Amherst police detained on July 5, 2022. Sadly, it has not been enough. The experiences of the six BIPOC youth identifying collectively as the Amherst 6, and their families, are experiencing profound grief, sorrow, and despair to this day from being repeatedly, and relentlessly targeted by Amherst police. How the police have disrupted these young people’s lives must be acknowledged and rectified. [Only] After the Human Rights Commission filed a complaint with the Town and the CSSJC called for a joint meeting with the Town Council did town officials finally address the injustice. The complaint led to a probe by the new director of the newly established office of equity and inclusion, Pamela Young, who acknowledged she had no investigative authority over the police. The police investigated themselves.”

Deborah Ferreira of the CSSJC said the work of the CSWG, of which she was also a member, was to prevent incidents such as that which occurred on July 5. The town’s response was botched and the families “need to be made whole.” She decried the lack of transparency in the submission of the RFP for the ROB consultant, when no member of the CSSJC was included in drafting the proposal.

CSSJC and CSWG member Pat Ononibaku noted how different people are treated differently in town, and there can’t be unity in town if some people are hurting. She has been asked to be a spokesperson for six of the families in the July 5 incident, because they are worried about facing retaliation if they speak out in public. 

Philip Avila, chair of the HRC, said that the last time an alarm went off at his workplace, the Survival Center, three staff members went to talk to the police who responded. The two people of color were asked for identification, but the white staff member was not. He spoke for police protocols being reviewed. Bockelman replied that there was obviously a difference between policy and practice. He added that the police union is still in collective bargaining, so policies cannot be changed until a new agreement is reached. Ferreira disagreed that policies regarding discrimination cannot be changed without a new agreement, and Bockelman said  that this is true. Nolan Young said she thinks that the consultant for the ROB will review police protocols.

Several members of the HRC and CSSJC urged that CRESS be funded for full-time service, but Earl Miller expressed caution about  expanding the program too fast. He wants to go slow to maintain quality of service for the public and training for the staff. He said, “We are just where we want to be.”

HRC member Elizabeth Haygood spoke of the need for youth representatives on committees and the Town Council to make sure the youth voice is heard when decisions are made.

Lopes And Ononibaku Disagree About Allocation Of ARPA Funds To Area Businesses
As another example of discrimination against people of color, Ononibaku pointed out that none of the $650,000 in federal American Rescue Plan funds distributed to area businesses went to existing Black-owned businesses and that both of the new Black-owned businesses that received money, the White Lion Brewery and the Carefree Cakery, are renting space from prominent White landlords. She did thank Bockelman, Earl Miller, and DEI Assistant Director Jennifer Moyston for coming to a Black Business Association meeting, but said she has “not heard a word from the council president or vice president.”

After Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) responded with the Business Improvement District’s list of minority businesses that received ARPA funds, Ononibaku noted that not one of them was an existing Black-owned business.

After Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5) responded with  the Business Improvement District’s list of minority businesses that received ARPA funds  Ononibaku noted that not one  of them was an  existing Black-owned business. Many were Latino-owned or were owned by White women. She said she based her arguments on information regarding ARPA funds from Amherst Finance Director Sean Mangano.

Anika Lopes (District 4) stepped into the discussion, saying, “We have a discrepancy of information. The BID has shown clear facts that there was money awarded to BIPOC businesses, and if we’re talking about businesses, I believe those business owners should be there as well as Gabrielle Gould [the BID director]. We are dealing with state funding with a process as to how that money could be received. This is a situation where we can use facts where we can know what businesses received. At the end of the day the BID was the only organization throughout the pandemic that was out there and doing something, calling attention to business.”

Walker noted that distribution of ARPA funds was handled with much more transparency in Springfield. Ononibaku replied to Lopes, “I stand behind everything I said.  I am excited for the public to find out who is telling the truth. It is me.”

The groups continued to discuss the progress in racial equity in Amherst, but did not finish going through all seven points in the November 14 resolution before the 11 p.m. time limit they had set.  Michele Miller said that the question about ARPA funding will be clarified with further  information from Mangano. 

A future meeting time will be scheduled.

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